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Positive and Negative Reinforcement - Oops


In Aubrey Daniels book Oops – 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money [and what to do instead] he indicates that most organizations are managed by negative reinforcement. There is a difference between negative and positive reinforcement and penalty and punishment. First you need to understand that punishment decreases behavior whereas negative or positive reinforcement increases it. Anytime someone does something because they have to rather than because they want to their behavior is under negative reinforcement. 

Here’s an example. If you enter a railroad tunnel, when you see the train entering the opposite end of the tunnel you will do whatever you can as fast as you can to exit the tunnel. Once you’re out of the tunnel and off the track you will quit running because there is no benefit to continue running. That’s negative reinforcement. Is that the common form of reinforcement in your organization? If it is you’re not alone. 

If your people are performing without positive reinforcement then you know that they are being managed by negative reinforcement since that is the only other way [other than positive reinforcement] to generate behavior. What about punishment or penalty? Punishment and penalty decrease behavior. Recognize the distinction.

Positive reinforcement is important because it is the only one that creates the highest value for an organization. Positive reinforcement solves problems quicker, better, and with less stress. It requires a very skilled application of positive reinforcement. When utilized correctly managers no longer need to resort to command and control or do it or else style of management. 

Wonder how this works and why you may have tried positive reinforcement in the past and it didn’t work? You most likely made a mistake in the selection or delivery of the reinforcement you chose. Making behavior work is all about following the rules according to Daniels:
  • Make it personal. People are unique in the things they find reinforcing. Although many people may find the same things to be reinforcing, not everyone will. For example, a large percentage of people at work find money to be highly reinforcing but, believe it or not, some people have all they need or want (and they are not all rich). Therefore, the offer of money as a positive reinforcer for some behavior will not be motivating to such people. Employees often turn down overtime pay because they value their free time more than they value more money.
  • Make it contingent. To be most effective, positive reinforcers must be earned. There must be a direct link between behavior and the delivery of the rein­forcer. The best test of this is to ask the question, "What did the person have to do to earn the rein­forcer?" The critical word is earn. As you will see, many of the benefits, rewards and even compensa­tion that people receive at work are often not for an accomplishment but for being in the right place at the right time. Benefits are typically rewards for being on the payroll. Raises may be given to every­one on an annual basis. Cost of living adjustments are given across the board. And so it goes.
  • Make it immediate. While it is difficult for most people to understand, positive reinforcement increases the behavior that is occurring when one gets it. Reinforcement that is delayed is likely to increase the behavior occurring when the positive reinforcer is delivered rather than the behavior that it was intended to reinforce. We learn to be superstitious because a behavior, such as re-pushing the button for the elevator, coincides with the arrival of the ele­vator when there is, in fact, no causal relation between the re-pushing and the speed of arrival. A child, who has earned a reward but receives it only after he starts crying for it, is reinforced for crying, not for what he did to earn it.
  • Make it frequent. One positive reinforcer will not make a habit. Many reinforcers are needed to estab­lish a habit. Video games deliver over 100 rein­forcers per minute to the players. Compare that to annual, quarterly, and monthly attempts at reward and recognition that most corporations use to try to create high levels of motivation.
Read these thoroughly and don’t miss the point that video games offer in contrast to our work places. Why don’t more organizations use positive reinforcement versus negative and why do we resort to punishment and penalties? Let’s look at what Opps and Daniels have to say about that in our next blog.  

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